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2 June 2021updated 30 Jun 2021 10:40am

Why Rishi Sunak is to blame for the government’s underfunding of schools

The reason the catch-up funding offered is so low is the austere spending settlement adopted by the Chancellor.

By Stephen Bush

The UK government has unveiled a £1.4bn package to help pupils in England catch up on lost learning. Is it enough?

Well, the Education Policy Institute recently put the required amount at £13.5bn over three years. Labour, alongside a far-reaching set of proposals to significantly expand the amount of one-to-one tuition, offer free school meals over the summer holidays and provide guaranteed mental health support, is proposing that the government should spend £14.7bn over two years. And Kevan Collins, the government’s education recovery tsar, thinks that ministers need to spend around £15bn

So either Gavin Williamson has managed to meet the level of need at a tenth of the cost through a feat of administrative skill and astonishing deal-making, or the sum provided is grossly inadequate. ​​​​​​Oh, and on top of that, it works out at a little less than £1bn, when you factor in that only £1bn of it is for catch-up programmes directly and that the reduction in the pupil premium takes another £120m off that sum.

It of course means that, once again, Johnson is facing calls to dispense with his Education Secretary and replace him with someone who can grasp the issue. 

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[see also: Gavin Williamson’s proposals on free speech and universities are a half-baked mess]

It’s true that a fresh face in the Department for Education would dispel some of the bad blood that has built up between Williamson and teachers. Or Williamson and parents. Or Williamson and university vice-chancellors. Or Williamson and, well, you get the picture.

But Williamson’s underlying problem isn’t anything that he or his department has done. It’s the very tight day-to-day spending regime envisaged by Rishi Sunak’s Budget that is the central cause of the difficulty. That same fiscal timetable means, as Henry Zeffman reveals in the Times, that Priti Patel is contemplating withdrawing the UK from the Council of Europe’s social charter, which among other things allows citizens of the council’s 47 member states to apply for worker visas at a discounted rate. 

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It took the Chancellor a huge amount of work and energy to sign the Prime Minister up to this Budget and an equally huge feat of spinning to hide the consequences of that decision from view. Sunak may find it takes still greater reserves of political energy and acumen to keep the Prime Minister on the straight and narrow and to keep his Budget intact, as its painful consequences begin to make themselves felt over the coming months and years.